A group of civil society organisations are spending Mandela Day locked inside the Rhema Bible College in Randburg so that they can formulate a plan to “recapture” South Africa from the grasp of Zuma Inc. It’s only just begun, but already Save South Africa and the organisations its teamed up with are struggling to get a grip on divisions in South Africa: namely which version of the national anthem everyone should sing.

It started with chairs groaning as the crowd stood to sing the national anthem to open the conference.
They were led by a singer dressed in red, a doek covering her hair. She crooned, occasionally out of tune, the famous lines of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Then she stopped.

The crowd stared ahead confused, as the singer left the stage, while Mandla Nkomfe, a member of Save South Africa and the MC for the day, gestured desperately for her to continue singing. But she ignored him; and some in the crowd continued on with Die Stem in softer, disharmonious voices.

The anthem concluded in its entirety with a murmur of the final line: “… in South Africa our land”.

Nkomfe dismissively waved away the awkwardness of the moment, as he took the stage to discuss the rules of Save SA’s event, which is called the Conference for the Future of South Africa.

The debate on the removal of Die Stem has now been around for a few years. Recently, however, the Economic Freedom Fighters and #FeesMustFall student protesters have led the demand for Die Stem to be removed from the post-apartheid anthem.

Save South Africa, however, appear not to have any resolution on the matter. 

The organisers could only look on in bewilderment as a singer at their event refused to sing the Afrikaans apartheid-era verse of the anthem.

Unity, however, has become a rallying cry for Save South Africa.

When Sipho Pityana, Save SA leader, delivered a lengthy keynote address, he emphasised that the conference was about “restoring power to the people”.

“A people united can never be divided,” Pityana said, his speech littered with popular liberation slogans.

Save South Africa has been clear that the central focus of today’s conference is to “build a common platform” which will serve as a movement against state capture.

The result of the conference will be a day worth of discussions where resolutions will be adopted for “a programme of action” to ensure that Zuma is voted out via secret ballot on August 8 in the Parliamentary motion of no confidence against him, and that institutions are protected against further corruption.

“I will say this everyday as if it is my night prayer: Zuma must go,” Pityana said.

ANC MPs Makhosi Khoza and Derek Hanekom, who have been outspoken against state capture, and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas were in the crowd as Pityana spoke.

Members of civil society and business listened attentively. But it had the feel of the People’s Assembly last November which Save South Africa hosted in a church in Pretoria.

Promises were made at that assembly, but as it went on, protesters outside, who had effectively shut down streets in Tshwane with the EFF, were locked out of the church assembly. Their protest was more robust than the well-mannered etiquette observed in the People’s Assembly and so the gates around the church were locked.

On Tuesday, Save South Africa warned as part of its conference rules that disruption would not be tolerated.

Stars capture has meant that vital institutions in South Africa are no longer serving the interests of the public that they have been built for. While state capture needs to be challenged and disarmed, it will not happen without the support of South Africans and addressing the existence of divisions within pro-democracy movements.

The significance of divisions
Conferences, like this one on Mandela Day, will be fruitless if a singer is encouraged to sing Die Stem even if she doesn’t want to, and if state capture is not spoken of in relation to other divisions in South Africa.

Khoza touched on this as she spoke about President Jacob Zuma’s response to protesters who have demanded him to step down: “He calls them racist and agents of white monopoly capital.” 

At the ANC national policy conference last week,  a furore broke out around whether there is indeed white monopoly capital or if it is only monopoly capital. Bell Pottinger developed a campaign to protect the Gupta family by exploiting racial tensions that exist in South Africa. One of the most lethal outcomes of their campaign was that anyone who does call anti-Zuma protesters holding bananas racist immediately receives backlash for being pro-Zuma even if that is not the case.

People who believe that monopoly capital in South Africa is still in the hands of powerful white people who benefitted from apartheid are immediately shunned as being Black First Land First sympathisers.

The result of Bell Pottinger and Zuma Inc’s campaign, besides its corruption of democratic institutions, is that independent opinions are discredited and debased with name-calling rather than well-considered arguments.

The national anthem and Die Stem may seem entirely removed from the fight against state capture, but divisions in South Africa must at the very least be acknowledged and spoken about if a solution is to be found and if civil society is to unite.

Until then, a conference for South Africa’s future will not succeed in bringing the change or “recapture” for the people it so desires.